English Not Spoken Here

At least not very well. English is taught in Italian schools from third grade on, but most people who want to learn it properly take courses outside of school and try to do a study tour in the UK or US as well.

Still, things are changing…

When I first arrived in Italy 10 years ago, all film titles were translated into Italian, with sometimes peculiar results. The first James Bond film, known in English as “Dr. No” was translated as “Licenza di Uccidere” (License to Kill). So the film distributors presumably found themselves in difficulties many years later when the English-titled License to Kill (with Timothy Dalton) was released (but I wasn’t in Italy at the time, so I don’t know what they did about that).

Almost all films are still dubbed into Italian; in Milan, you can see English-language films only in selected cinemas on certain nights of the week (one film per week). Personally I find this annoying – I like to hear the original voices. But they do it extraordinarily well. The same doppiatori (dubbing actors) tend to dub the same actors year after year, film after film, and some of them are prodigiously good – especially the guy who does Woody Allen – sounds just like him, if Woody Allen spoke Italian that well (for all I know, he may – he spends a lot of time in Venice).

What’s annoying, however, is the insistence on dubbing even the songs in musicals – it’s very difficult to translate a song so that it maintains the meter and rhyme scheme of the original, especially when it also has to maintain exact meaning in places where a song is accompanied by action. So most of these translations are abject failures.

Fortunately, this is no longer done for the few non-animated musicals that Hollywood still produces; Evita was entirely subtitled. But it’s done to all cartoon musicals, presumably because kids aren’t expected to be able to follow subtitles. So, much as I love Disney movies, I either see them in an English-speaking country, or wait til I can get them on DVD.

Dec 3, 2003

Since I wrote the above, I’ve grown less tolerant of dubbing. Perhaps I’m spoiled now by the greater availability of English-language films: at my local Blockbuster, via Amazon, via cable TV (if we had it), and occasionally even at the cinema. The few times we have seen dubbed films at the cinema recently, I’ve found them hard to follow, although I have no difficulty following Italian film or TV. I suppose the difficulty of dubbing dialog that makes sense and suits the mouth movements in the original language makes for some occasionally convoluted phrasing that is simply harder to understand. And, some of the time, half of my brain is busy wondering what the original line in English was, which distracts me from the next line.

There is a growing tendency, in Milan at least, to show some big movies in English for a week or so, I suppose for the benefit of a fairly large non-local audience. We can be confident that The Return of the King will be shown in English somewhere that we can get to it. However, it is opening in Italy far later than anywhere else in the world ­ late January! Augh!

One thought on “English Not Spoken Here

  1. Richard Davies

    I remember hearing that there was a strike by Italian dubbing artists in the late 1990’s & for a few weeks all the new film releases had to be subtitled.

    Personally I perfer subtitles to dubbing as often the dubbed on dialogue doesn’t match the existing lip movements & is in a voice that doesn’t fit the character well.

    The DVD of Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon has the option of an English dub, which seem to be translated differently from Mandarin compaired to the subtites.

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